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February 20, 2013

Five to Watch

Impact Arms With Unclear Roles

by Paul Sporer

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One of new segments coming to you from the BP fantasy team is the Five to Watch in Spring Training series, with Bret Sayre handling the hitters (as he did in the debut post last week) and yours truly covering the pitchers. The noteworthy players will be generally be guys on their way back from an injury, those fighting for playing time, and prospects looking to make an impression. Today’s group features an intriguing set of arms who could be high-impact assets if all goes as planned.

Aroldis Chapman

It didn’t take long for a string of Chapman stories to emerge, but Saturday’s from FOXSportsOhio.com’s Hal McCoy contained an especially newsworthy quote from manager Dusty Baker:

Somebody said, “Your rotation was good last year, but you’re still making the move with Chapman…”  At that point, Baker interrupted and said, “Maybe. That’s a maybe. It’s the same situation as last year. We started with Chapman as a starter. Then Ryan Madson (closer) went down. We had no clue Chapman would be as good as he is as a closer. I don’t think anybody did. We didn’t know if he was going to throw enough strikes,”

I am always in favor of a team utilizing a special pitcher in the rotation if possible. I championed Texas trying Neftali Feliz as a starter and desperately wanted the Rangers to put Alexi Ogando back in the rotation last year. I would advocate this move with Chapman, too, if I thought it had a reasonable chance of succeeding, but I’m skeptical, because we have seen nothing in the form of a third pitch from the flamethrowing lefty. He hasn’t needed it as a major-league reliever, but it’s not like he was overwhelmingly successful as a minor league starter, either.

Chapman is currently being drafted in the early 80s, according to NFBC mock draft data, which means that he needs to either be Chris Sale 2.0 or go back into the bullpen and be an ace closer again to fulfill that cost. Chapman’s transition will be one of the biggest stories of spring training, and his draft position will likely vacillate with the reports from Arizona. I cannot envision a scenario in which I would recommend drafting Chapman in the top 100, unless he is assured of a return to the closer role.

Bruce Rondon 

Perhaps the second-biggest story (or the biggest, if you’re judging by mass) of the very-early going is Rondon and the Detroit Tigers closer role. This story actually started brewing just two days after the Tigers were swept out of the World Series, when general manager Dave Dombrowski mentioned Rondon regarding the ninth-inning job during a post-World Series media session. There was a portion of the winter where rumors had Rafael Soriano becoming a Tiger, but outside of that, it has been assumed that Rondon would be the guy. Or, at least, that he would get a significant chance to become the guy in spring training.

The 22-year old Venezuelan righty doesn’t lack for velocity. He sits 97-100 with movement, though it is often guided by Apple Maps, as evidenced by his 11.9 percent walk rate a year ago and even worse 13 percent career mark. He fanned 30 percent of the batters he faced across three levels last year, and he’s cut down 25 percent of his opponents over a 196-inning professional career. On the other hand, in addition to a horrible walk rate, Rondon is still extremely young and has just 29 2/3 innings of work in the high minors—including a mere eight innings at Triple-A.

With a bevy of options including Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque, and even Phil Coke (though his inability to retire righties is very troubling), it is surprising that the Tigers would look to hand Rondon the reins, given how well this team is set up to win at its other 24 roster spots. I suspect the leash will be tight, and an overwhelming lack of command, even in exhibition games, will urge the Tigers to pull the plug on the Rondon experiment for at least the beginning of 2013.

Shelby Miller 

Before Chris Carpenter announced that he was out indefinitely (and possibly done for good), Miller was left fighting for a rotation spot against incumbent Lance Lynn, who had an excellent 2012 season after transitioning from the bullpen. Now, Miller sits as the number-five frontrunner, ahead of fellow prospect Trevor Rosenthal and last year’s super-swingman, Joe Kelly. After a disastrous first half in Triple-A last year, Miller rebounded to post a 2.88 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 59 innings, en route to a major-league cup of coffee and playoff-roster spot. He threw 13 2/3 strong innings—split between five relief appearances and a season-closing start—and had a 1.32 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 30 percent strikeout rate.

The blue-chipper was rated second by the prospect team in the early February review of the Cardinals farm system and tabbed with a number-two starter ceiling, but that outlook doesn’t guarantee him a slot on Opening Day. He will still have to compete for his role. Kelly might not have the inside track, but his 107 innings with the club last year bolster his case. Rosenthal also earned a late-season turn with the team, as well as a playoff role, though all of his work was out of the bullpen. Hence, I would handicap the race as being between Miller and Kelly, as we prepare to start exhibition games later this week.

Ryan Madson 

Returning from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2012, Madson has experienced some early elbow discomfort that has cast a dark cloud over his status as the team’s closer. He was originally penciled into the ninth-inning job, ahead of Ernesto Frieri, after signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal, but the elbow trouble has changed the equation a bit. The latest depth chart has both of the righties earning save opportunities, though it still leans toward Madson as the primary closer, netting 28 saves to Frieri’s nine.

Anyone tabbing Madson for a full recovery after an entire season away from the diamond was definitely taking a glass-half-full view, and I’m sure that even the Angels never expected a completely smooth road to recovery. Having Frieri as a more-than-capable backup allows them to take their time and make sure that Madson isn’t rushed to the point where he hurts himself even more and misses a significant part of 2013. Madson threw again on Monday without complications, though the Angels seem resigned to the idea of being without him on Opening Day. Now, it’s just a matter of determining how much time Madson will miss, so that you can gauge how to value him and Frieri on draft day.

Julio Teheran

Lost in the hubbub of the Justin Upton trade was the opportunity that it opened up for Teheran. The uber-prospect ranked fifth on the last two Top 101 prospect lists from Kevin Goldstein, but rewarded last year’s confidence with a 5.08 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 131 Triple-A innings during his second tour of the International League. The first time, at age 20, couldn’t have gone better, as he managed a 2.55 ERA with a 1.18 ERA in 144 2/3 innings. The opposition clubbed Teheran around the yard last year, collecting 23 more hits and 13 more home runs in about 14 fewer innings of work. It seemed like a continuation of his spring, when he allowed an unfathomable nine home runs in just 16 1/3 Grapefruit League innings.

The fantasy world tends to overreact to prospect statistics, so don’t be surprised if Teheran can be had for a song compared to what his cost would’ve been a year ago. Despite the disappointment, this isn’t the end of the line for Teheran as a prospect—not even close. He was just a 21-year old in Triple-A who had some struggles that snowballed. He will only have to thwart lesser prospects for the fifth spot in the rotation, as the Braves don’t have any veteran non-roster invitees vying for the job.

With that in mind, it actually appears that the Braves have cleared a path for Teheran. If he were to struggle as he did last spring, they could easily bring someone in, but for now the fifth spot in the rotation is his to lose. Stay tuned to this column for updates as Teheran gets some Grapefruit League innings under his belt. Don’t ignore this top prospect come draft day in your NL-only leagues and super-deep mixed leagues, considering how excited you would’ve been to land him on your roster just 365 days ago. 

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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